God is Transcendent and Immanent
“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (First Kings 8:27, ESV)
The Temple was God’s palace, God’s dwelling-place, God’s “house” in which he would dwell in the midst of and rule over His covenant people. And King Solomon, under Divinely-inspired direction, had built Yahweh (the God of Israel) a magnificent “house” indeed! The Temple built by Solomon was intended by God to be a majestic symbol of both God’s sovereign, theocratic rule over Israel and his gracious, covenantal presence whereby he had come to dwell in the midst of the people whom he had graciously redeemed from slavery in Egypt.
In the Temple God accepted sacrifices which were offered to cover Israel’s sins so that God’s holy presence in their midst would not destroy them in judgment, and in the Temple God heard the prayers of both Israelites and even foreigners (First Kings 8:41-43) who prayed toward the Temple to God. In the inner sanctuary of the Temple, called the “holy of holies,” was placed a gold-covered box called the ark of the covenant, which contained the tablets on which God had inscribed the ten commandments, and which symbolized God’s throne. All of this symbolism is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah, the “Word made flesh” who came to dwell among us in his Incarnation (John 1:14), for Christ is the living Temple of God in the flesh.
The Temple and its symbolism point to the reality of what might be called God’s radical immanence. The term “immanence” when used in theology means that God’s presence pervades his creation. God’s immanence is implied by God’s attribute of omnipresence and by God’s general providence in the created realm. God’s omnipresence means that “all of God is present everywhere at all times.” God is everywhere present within his creation, not in the sense that he is “spread out” over the universe like one might spread out butter over a piece of toast, but in the sense that the fulness of his Divine being is everywhere, unbounded by time or space. God’s general providence means that he governs all of his created order and all of his creatures, usually through secondary means that we today call “natural laws.” But it is important for us to understand that these “natural laws” are not impersonal laws which are capable of functioning on their own without God’s sustaining hand. No, they are simply God’s ordinary, regular way of doing things. As Scripture teaches, God through Christ moment-by-moment sustains his creation by his Divine providence (Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3).
So God is radically immanent within his creation. God is present everywhere and among all peoples. And as Solomon’s Temple symbolized, God is present with his covenant people in a special, redemptive sense. But the tendency of the ancient pagans in the Gentile nations which surrounded Israel was to imagine that their gods were depenedent upon their people for food and shelter. The Gentiles feared that their gods would get angry with them if they did not appease them through their rituals and feed them through their sacrifices. What this means is that pagan temples and the rituals that took place within those temples tended to be viewed by the Gentiles as ways of manipulating and (in some sense) controlling their gods. After all, the “gods” of the nations, while being powerful and capable of harming those who offended them, nevertheless depended upon their worshippers for food (sacrifices) and shelter (temple / the “house” of the god).
Solomon’s prayer of dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem makes it clear that Yahweh, the God of Israel, unlike the “gods” of the Gentiles, was not limited by or contained within his Temple. Yahweh is not a God who can be manipulated or controlled, nor is he a God who depends upon his worshippers for food or shelter or anything else, for as the great “I Am” he is self-existent and self-sufficient. All of this points to another equally-important truth about God: His radical transcendence.
In theology when we speak of God’s “transcendence” we mean that God exists in a higher realm than we do. God is “above” his creation, not spatially, but in the sense that he is not bound by created realities such as time, space or matter. While God is indeed present within his creation (immanent), he is not bound by his creation, nor dependent upon his creation. Nor is God to be identified with his creation (the error of pantheism). Instead, he is beyond his creation, for he himself is the Creator. Solomon recognizes this truth about God when he prays, “Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (First Kings 8:27, ESV) This statement from wise King Solomon points to the reality of God’s transcendence.
Perhaps all of this seems rather abstract to you. Perhaps, dear reader, you are tempted to think that all of this theology is rather academic, disconnected from the practical realities of your daily life, and thus “irrelevant.” If you are tempted to think this way, allow me to gently challenge you to think about some of the powerful implications of God’s transcendance and immanence. For example, the fact that God is transcendent means that he cannot be controlled or manipulated. This means that prayer is not an act of trying to cajole or manipulate God into doing what we want him to do. Instead, true prayer is an act of humbling ourselves before our transcendent Creator, and a recognition of our utter dependence upon him for everything. So the theological truth of God’s trascendence ought to have a practical impact upon the way that you pray and upon your attitude toward God in prayer. The truth of God’s transcendence also means that there is a reality more ultimate than the reality of your own personal world. To live in the light of God’s transcendence means living with an eternal perspective, and thus this truth should help you to keep your priorities in life in proper order (with God first, others second, and yourself third).
What about the “practical” implications of God’s immanence? Many could be named, but let me offer just a few examples. For the believer in Christ, the truth of God’s immancence means that God our heavenly Father is with us even when we feel like he is absent and even in our sufferings. Trials, tribulations, persecutions and sorrows are real, but they do not mean that God has abandoned us. As David writes in Psalm 139, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” (Psalm 139:7-10, ESV) So the theological truth of God’s immanence should have a profound practical effect for the believer in providing great comfort.
The immancence of God should also remind us that, because God is present everywhere and is always present with us, therefore he sees everything we do, even behind closed doors and outside the view of the public eye. This should serve as a warning to the wicked and unrepentant, that their wickedness cannot be hidden from God. And it should also serve as an incentive for believers to fear God and avoid hypocrisy.
God is both transcendent and immanent. These theological truths about God ought to make a much more profound impact upon our lives than they often do. By the grace of God, let us as followers of Christ seek to live our lives in the light of God’s radical immanence and transcendence.